Perhaps the most famous African-American actor of the early 20th
century, Paul Robeson rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance.
Robeson took a roundabout route to the stage. His father, a former
slave who had gone on to earn a degree in theology from Lincoln University,
instilled a keen social awareness in the younger Robeson. After attending
Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey (where he earned All-American
honors on the football field and Phi Beta Kappa honors in the classroom),
Paul graduated as the valedictorian of his class in 1919. From that
springboard he entered Columbia University, where he earned a law
degree in 1923.
Encouraged by his wife, Essie, Robeson began moonlighting as an
actor in local YMCA productions. By day, meanwhile, he had begun working
as a lawyer in the New York law office of Stotesbury and Miner. But
the overt racism that Robeson encountered there—his white secretary,
for one, was openly insubordinate—clinched his decision to take
up acting full-time.
In 1921, Robeson joined the chorus of the landmark musical Shuffle
Along. Three years later, he braved death threats to star in
Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings, which featured
an interracial romance. Later that same year (1924), Robeson played
the lead role of O'Neill's The Emperor Jones in the London
production of the play; he would also star in the 1933 film version.
Robeson distinguished himself and his profession by achieving spectacular
success in stage and film roles that had previously been off limits
to black actors. His legendary performances in Showboat,
Othello, and the Oscar Micheaux film Body and Soul
became benchmarks by which later generations of actors would measure
themselves. As Robeson's acting career ushered him around the globe,
he became a passionate and outspoken advocate of civil rights and
social justice. Several bitter run-ins with racism led him to a flirtation
with communism—and resulting banishment from the stage. After
living in Great Britain from 1958 to 1963, Robeson returned to the
States and lived out his life in obscurity and ill health.